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Trout Travails Once-Abundant Cutthroat In Precarious Position As Watersheds Are Degraded

A trout species named after Lewis and Clark is teetering toward extinction because of logging and development that followed the explorers into the Pacific Northwest, conservationists said last week.

Famed fly-fisherman Bud Lilly joined leaders of several environmental groups at a Montana news briefing to urge Endangered Species Act protection for the westslope cutthroat trout, a popular, speckled sport fish with the scientific name Onchorhynchus clarki lewisi.

“The fish require pure, cold, clean water and the habitat which produces it,” said Jeff Larmer, executive director of Bozeman, Mont.-based American Wildlands. “Their drastic decline is telling us the watersheds of the Northern Rockies are hurting.”

Larmer and other group leaders are petitioning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for listing of the trout as a threatened species, which is a slightly less restrictive classification than endangered species.

There were millions of westslope cutthroat in the region when William Clark and Meriwether Lewis first visited in the early 1800s.

But the trout’s population has dropped into the thousands, and it is now found in fewer than 10 percent of the streams it once inhabited in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, Larmer said.

This might seem impossible to anglers who can catch and release dozens of cutthroats a day in some Idaho rivers, such as the St. Joe or tributaries to the Clearwater.

But an Idaho Fish and Game Department study published in 1989 by Bruce Rieman and Kim Apperson reported that strong cutthroat populations were found in only 11 percent of their former Idaho range.

In Western Montana, the cutthroat’s numbers are 2 percent or less of what they once were, Larmer said.

Lilly, who operated a fly-fishing shop at the west entrance of Yellowstone National Park for 35 years, said, “I don’t think it’s too late, but we are at a crossroads.”

Backers of the listing say preparations for the 200th anniversary of the Lewis & Clark Expedition in 2005 will help draw attention to the plight of the fish, which was mentioned in a log kept by one of their guides in 1804.

“In Lewis and Clark’s time, it was the most widespread and abundant of all the trout in the Northwest,” Larmer said.

About 94 percent of the remaining westslope cutthroat are found in national forests and other public lands - mostly in formally designated wilderness and other roadless areas where logging, mining and other development has not occurred, they said.

“As soon as the habitat starts to degrade, we lose the cutthroat. They can’t make it,” Larmer said.

That means private property owners are not likely to be affected by a formal listing, the conservationists said.

Threatened status would allow continued catch-and-release fishing for the cutthroat, which is prohibited when a fish is declared endangered.

Robert Ament, programs coordinator for American Wildlands, said it’s impossible to estimate the total remaining population of the westslope cutthroat trout. In Western Montana, where the best population studies have been done, there are only about 20 population segments surviving, compared with about 3,600 at the time of Lewis and Clark, he said.

Concern for cutthroat trout is not new, said Ned Horner, Idaho Fish and Game Department regional Fisheries manager in Coeur d’Alene. Although the state agency is not involved in petitioning for protective status for the fish, the agency has tried to protect cutthroats with regulations.

“The source of the trouble is with the habitat,” Horner said. “But all we have the authority to do is regulate fishermen.”

In 1988, Idaho enacted strict cutthroat fishing regulations for the entire Spokane River drainage. The rules included restricting anglers to catch-and-release fishing in the headwaters of rivers such as the Coeur d’Alene and St. Joe Rivers.

“Where habitat is in good condition, these regulations have had a positive response on the cutthroat populations,” Horner said.

“Where habitat is in poor condition, such as the Coeur d’Alene River, even catch-and-release hasn’t helped a lot.”

Ironically, the petition to list cutthroat trout comes just after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wavered at adding the bull trout to the endangered list.

Bull trout are in even more dire straits than cutthroats.

“Last year, the Panhandle National Forests set guidelines for timber sales focused on helping bull trout and westslope cutthroats,” Horner said. “They have announced major rehabilitation projects in one drainage of the St. Joe and Trestle Creek, which feeds Pend Oreille Lake.

“But in the Coeur d’Alene drainage, the need for rehabilitation far exceeds the funding available to the Forest Service.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Associated Press Spokesman-Review writer Rich Landers contributed to this story.

Tags: fish